When Michael Krawiec discovered two adjoining, vacant storefronts on a corner in North Williamsburg during a space-scouting stroll a few months ago, he was gleeful. The entrepreneur was convinced he’d found the perfect landing spot for his next venture. “I didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to find a space like that,” says Krawiec.
Not only were the windowed, ground-floor commercial spaces set in a Brooklyn neighborhood teeming with high-profile new developments, including the William Vale Hotel and the under-construction 25 Kent office building, but they could seamlessly house his freshly hatched concept: a bar and a coffeehouse under one roof.
However, after coming to an agreement on rent with the building’s owner, Krawiec, a former co-owner of two bars in Astoria, his moment of triumph turned to anxiety when he considered the next hurdle: getting a liquor license for the place. Without that, there would be no economically viable new business, no matter how great the location.
Krawiec was aware that, before applying for the liquor license with the New York State Liquor Authority, he’d first have to plead his case to Brooklyn Community Board No. 1, or CB#1, which covers Williamsburg and Greenpoint. “I knew that CB#1 is very tough; they’re very thorough, very aware of what’s going in their neighborhood,” Krawiec says. “So I knew it was going to be a challenge.”
By and large, the explosive growth of Brooklyn’s nightlife scene into one of the best in the world has been a boon for borough residents and visitors. More than 600 bars opened in Brooklyn between 2011 and 2014 alone, while the overall tourism-and-entertainment has seen the best annual job-growth rate of any sector across the borough. It’s now the third-largest industry in Brooklyn, accounting for 53,900 jobs.
Yet the vitality of Brooklyn nightlife, already threatened by rising real-estate prices, could face another challenge: mounting pushback from community boards wary of allowing bar districts to disrupt residential areas. In Downtown Manhattan, the battle has already broken out in heated community meetings. Prospective bar owners have grown concerned that community boards in the city have already wielded too much power, making the procurement of liquor licenses too difficult for new business owners, who face a months-long process in obtaining one. To help such entrepreneurs with the many regulatory issues they face, Mayor de Blasio recently appointed the first “director of nightlife.”
The role of community boards in the process is to give the state liquor authority (SLA) their suggestions of approval or disapproval when a business owner wants to sell alcohol in their neighborhoods. The procedure is more formal, including a hearing, when the proposed business will be within a 500-foot radius of at least three other such premises. This law, known as “the 500-foot rule,” dates back to 1993, when a Queens State Senator drafted it in reaction to a shooting death of an off-duty police officer on a bar-rich boulevard in Bayside.
The 500-foot rule has created a treacherous hurdle for entrepreneurs, according to Robert Bookman, a lawyer for the New York City Hospitality Alliance, who has been representing bar, restaurant and club owners for 30 years. The law puts the burden on applicants to prove to community boards that their business is in the “public interest.” Says Bookman: “Of course the legislation did not define what ‘public interest’ means,” observing that its definition has had “a kind of ad hoc development over the years” within the SLA and community boards.
“The law intended communities to have input here, but it didn’t intend for them to have veto power,” Bookman continues. “Ostensibly that’s where we’re at now, though.”
In Krawiec’s case, to establish good standing with CB#1, which he stresses he has no ill feelings toward, the entrepreneur got creative. He drew up a sign announcing his intention to open Silver Light Tavern + Coffee on the coveted North Williamsburg corner and stood in front of the space talking to neighbors about his plans over ten winter days, in stints of six or eight hours a day.
“I didn’t want to be intrusive,” Krawiec says. “I didn’t want to go knocking on doors; I didn’t want to run up to people on the street.” Each time he spoke to a resident who expressed support, Krawiec asked for a petition signature, and says he ultimately garnered about 250. Many were struck by his congenial form of outreach. “A lot of people asked, ‘Is this normal?’” Krawiec recalls. “And I was like, ‘I don’t think so.’”
In other cases, the prospective bar owner can be haunted by the behavior of the previous proprietor. When Mark Langton looked to open Paddy’s Irish pub with his wife in Park Slope in 2015, he too knew he’d face an uphill climb in getting a liquor license. “The previous tenants had been here for 13 years,” Langton says, referring to the Paddy’s address. “It was a biker/strip bar, like there was literally a pole on the bar when we took it over.” Heavy-metal bands used to play in the space late into the evening.
“From my point of view, as a human being and as a resident, I’d be of the same mind,” says Langton, who’d also co-owned a bar in Manhattan. “When it came time for us to look for our license, they objected.”
At the hearing with Community Board No. 6 when his application was considered, Langton says with a slight chuckle, “All hell broke loose.” Residents complained about anarchy at the location for years, but in such a way that seemed to lump Langton in with the prior owners. “I shouldn’t have, but I lost my temper,” he admits. “I said, ‘I don’t know who the hell you think you are, but we are not the people that you’re portraying.’”
Cooler heads eventually prevailed. A member of the community board observed that, in spite of residents’ displeasure with the bar’s former owners, their liquor license had always remained intact. Langton presented proof that there had never been a …